Study Guide

Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard Introduction


Release Year: 1950

Genre: Drama

Director: Billy Wilder

Writer: Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshman Jr.

Stars: Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, William Holden


Norma Desmond makes most crazy celebrities look like little more than a pack of babbling Muppets.

If you want to see a true image of an insane, deluded star, look no further than Sunset Boulevard. It beats all the supposed "reality" of reality TV. Kardashians, eat your hearts out. That is, if Norma doesn't beat you to it.

Sunset Boulevard is about a young, down-on-his-luck screenwriter named Joe Gillis, who, purely by chance, ends up working for an actress from the silent film era named Norma Desmond (played by real silent-era goddess Gloria Swanson). She's a somewhat-crazy has-been celebrity who is desperately planning a comeback. Joe gradually goes from helping Norma write a script for her (probably terrible) comeback movie to becoming her kept-man. 

And it all goes downhill from there.

As you can guess by the very first scene of the movie—in which Joe appears dead in a swimming pool, before his voice narrates the rest of the movie in flashback—things don't exactly end well.

But an unhappy ending is inevitable in a movie like Sunset Boulevard. This isn't your grandmother's feel-good flick. In fact, it's a stirring indictment of the evil magic of the cult of celebrity and a searing look into the desperate illusions that underlie the lives of (at least some) of the people trying to make it big in Hollywood. 

Basically, fame = bad news.

Despite its oh-so-depressing finale, by and large, everyone loved Sunset when it came out in 1950. The vast majority of reviews were totally positive, and it netted a Best Screenplay award at the Oscars. Its reputation has only ballooned since then: it was one of the first twenty-five movies deemed worthy of cultural preservation by the Library of Congress in 1989, and it made it into the top 20 of both of the American Film Institute's "100 Years, 100 Films" lists. It just goes to show that the nightmares that seethe under the bright lights of Hollywood are also really good at making Hollywood money.

We like to think that Sunset's success has a little something to do with its being the brain child of a Hollywood dream team: director-and-writer Billy Wilder and his screenwriting partner Charles Brackett. These two—Wilder in particular—were responsible for some of the most influential and well-loved movies of Hollywood's golden era: Some Like it Hot, The Lost Weekend, you name it. As pros of silver-screenwriting, these two were perfectly positioned to write a seething critique of the very industry that paid their bills.

What is Sunset Boulevard About and Why Should I Care?

Warning: If you happen to be a celebrity, this movie might destroy you. Sunset Boulevard pulls no punches when it comes to attacking the whole idea of stardom.

We sense a vague or frequently not-so-vague idea creeping underneath a lot of entertainment news: Celebrities are magical people who are somehow better and more important than everyone else, and the greatest goal in life is to bask in the love and affection of untold numbers of slavish admirers. That's the real American Dream: getting tan by the hot light of a movie camera for hours, strutting your stuff on a red carpet, and hobnobbing with the other La La Land insiders. Sunset Boulevard doesn't just attack this idea: It savagely obliterates it, reduces it to ashes, and salts the earth so that it will never grow again.

In Sunset, Norma Desmond is a has-been celebrity who suffers from this particular delusion in a really extreme way. In paying tribute to herself, she'll say things like, "Stars are ageless" and "Great stars have great pride." Basically, she sounds a lot like Kanye West on an admittedly average day. 

As 'Ye once said in an interview with Zane Lowe, "I just told you who I thought I was! A god!" (source)

While Norma doesn't go quite as far as openly proclaiming her own divinity, she basically views herself as the cream of the crop—though she considers herself worthless and contemplates suicide when she doesn't receive the love that she thinks she deserves. Her "lover" (for lack of a better word), Joe Gillis, plays cynical witness to her own destructive delusions. That is, until he gets destroyed by those delusions himself.

In the end, it's impossible to watch this movie without feeling that the desire for popular adulation is just plain sick. Taken to its logical conclusions, we see that it's a perfect blueprint for insanity—particularly in the movie's last scene, where Norma Desmond, in the throes of honest-to-goodness psychosis, gets ready for her "close-up." We can't think of anything more disturbing.

Trivia

There's a real world behind all that glitz and glam. Norma Desmond's name is based on the actress Mabel Normand and her friend William Desmond Taylor, who was murdered. (But just to be clear, Mabel Normand did not murder Taylor.) So, it evokes memories of a famous Hollywood murder. (Source.)

Erich von Stroheim, who played Max von Mayerling, actually directed movies starring Gloria Swanson, who played Norma Desmond—thus mirroring part of their characters' relationship (though not the part where Desmond and Mayerling were formerly married). And Swanson acted in Cecil B. DeMille's movies too—just like Desmond in the film. (Source.)

Here's a fun fact: Real former silent-screen stars—like funny man Buster Keaton—played the role of "The Waxworks" in Sunset, washed-up stars who gather to play bridge with Norma Desmond. (Source.)

The film was a dicey move back then. When Sunset came out, Louis Mayer (of MGM) said that Billy Wilder had "bit the hand that fed him" by criticizing the movie business. Wilder replied by cursing Mayer to his face—though the exact nature of the profanity Wilder used is debated. (Source.)

Sunset Boulevard Resources

WEBSITES

Get to Know the Basics
This Internet Movie Database page has the full lowdown on all of Sunset Boulevard's trivia and quirks, in addition to providing lots of information on the cast, the director, etc.

Old-School Reviews, Anyone?
On Rotten Tomatoes, you can read some of the sterling reviews and appreciative pieces Sunset Boulevard has received over the years. Aside from a tiny cadre of skeptics, it's all pretty positive.

The Film Site
This site provides a little background on the movie—just a little mental nosh. (If you want an in-depth analysis and summary, you'll have to look elsewhere, like, say Shmoop.)

MUSICAL ADAPTATIONS

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard
Although it initially received mixed reviews, Webber's adaptation of the movie had a series of successful runs in London, New York, and L.A. Billy Wilder liked it—and that's what counts.

REFERENCES AND ALLUSIONS

Astrology
Astrology is a classic L.A. interest, then and now—and Norma Desmond is an adherent, sending her script to DeMille in tune with the planetary calendar and agreeing to work with Joe because he is a Sagittarius.

The Black Dahlia
Artie Green jokes that Joe is a "Black Dahlia suspect," a reference to an extremely brutal and famous L.A. murder that occurred in 1947. The victim was a young woman, Elizabeth Short, whom the newspapers nicknamed the "Black Dahlia."

Great Expectations
What's life without a little Dickens? Joe compares Norma's house—and by extension Norma—to Miss Havisham, who fell into a state of decay by being angry at the world and at the man who left her at the altar.

The Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty
Mack Sennett's "Bathing Beauties" appeared in some of Sennett's short comedy films. As you can guess by the title, they were women in bathing suits. Norma Desmond pretends to be a Bathing Beauty for Joe's amusement at one point.

The Naked and the Dead
Joe sarcastically tells Sheldrake that he'll write The Naked and the Dead next time, after Betty condemns his Bases Loaded script for being hollow hackwork. The Naked and the Dead (1948) is a famous World War II novel by Norman Mailer about American G.I.s fighting the Japanese Army in the South Pacific.

Salomé
Norma Desmond's screenplay is based on the story of Salomé, who was a princess who supposedly demanded—and received—the death of John the Baptist as a gift from her stepfather, King Herod.

Silent Stars
Some silent stars—like Swanson and Buster Keaton—actually appear in the movie, along with real directors from that era like DeMille and von Stroheim. Additionally, a ton of silent-era stars are mentioned or referenced, from Greta Garbo and Mabel Normand to Norma Desmond's impression of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp.

The Young Lions
At one point we see Joe reading The Young Lions (1948), a World War II novel by Irwin Shaw.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

Wilder in Paris
The Paris Review normally covers fiction, poetry, and drama—but they interviewed Billy Wilder for their first "The Art of Screenwriting" installment.

Roger Ebert Knows His Stuff
No surprise—Ebert liked Sunset Boulevard. In fact, he gave it four stars and praised it for having one of the greatest last lines of all time.

The New York Times' Original Review of Sunset Boulevard
While the New York Times really liked Sunset Boulevard, the reviewer thought that the narrative device of having a dead man tell the story was "beneath" Wilder and Brackett. Now that narrative device is probably one of the most famous and distinctive aspects of the film. So eat it, old NYT guy.

Turner Classic Movies: Always A Good Source
TCM gives an extremely short paragraph synopsis of the movie, along with some details on how it was made, how casting worked, etc.

"Living with Norma Desmond" by Andrew Wilson
This article on Gloria Swanson's performance as Norma Desmond goes into crazy detail on her process—for instance, she stayed in character when she went home in the evenings—along with providing invaluable background detail on her career (and the occasional intermingling of gossip, like the affair Swanson had with John F. Kennedy's dad).

Way Back in the 90s
In this interview, an aging Wilder comments on the musical adaptation of his movie, featuring Andrew Lloyd Webber's music. It was rumored that Wilder wasn't pleased with that adaptation—but, here, he quashes that rumor.

Roger Ebert Interviews Gloria Swanson
Two giants in showbiz, ladies and gents. Although this interview ranges all over the place, Swanson does comment on her role in Sunset, particularly her Charlie Chaplin impression.

Mike Wallace Interviews Gloria Swanson
In this interview from way back in 1957, Swanson tells Mike Wallace that Norma Desmond isn't really that close to her personality, and that she doesn't have any corpses floating in her own swimming pool.

Roger Ebert Interviews William Holden
Did Ebert get to interview all the greats? We're jealous. In this one, Holden talks with Ebert about a lot more than Sunset Boulevard, though he does mention that Sunset originally began with a scene where corpses at the city morgue talked about how they died, and Joe Gillis's corpse narrates his death from there. It didn't really work with audiences, so Wilder substituted the scene where we see Gillis floating in the pool.

VIDEO

An Interview with Billy Wilder
It's a rare treat to see the man behind the script.

Video of Mike Wallace Interviewing Gloria Swanson
The silent film star talk-talk-talks.

"I am big. It's the pictures that got small."
Ah, one of the most famous lines in the movie—up there with, "Mr. DeMille I'm ready for my close-up."

Floating in a Pool…
… would be nicer under other—less dead—circumstances.

"As If We Never Said Goodbye" from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard Musical
You can judge for yourself if the musical version was a good idea or a bad one.

AUDIO

Soundtrack Suite from Franz Waxman's Score for Sunset Boulevard
Waxman's score actually won "Best Score" at the Oscars in 1951—so this is classic film music. Put it in your library pronto.

Betty Buckley Sings "As If We Never Said Goodbye" from the Musical Version of Sunset Boulevard
Here's another rendition of one of the highlights from Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical adaptation of the movie. There aren't too many cat people in tight leotards in this one, though, so it's a little different from Webber's other work.

The National Philharmonic Orchestra, Conducted by Charles Gerhardt, Plays the "Suite" from Franz Waxman's Score
This is a re-vamped, re-recorded version of Waxman's score—something that was only available within the last 15 years.

IMAGES

Post Up, Boulevarders
In the original movie poster, we see a crazy-looking, giant Norma-head menacing Joe and Betty, plus a menacingly tied strip of film with the title on it.

Norma Desmond's Final "Close Up"
Swanson nails the insane look—but the reporters standing around look like they see this kind of thing all the time.

Gillis' Corpse, Floating in the Pool
We wonder how long Holden had to hold his breath to film this scene, considering that it took Wilder a while to get it right?

Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond
Here's another image of Swanson as Desmond, switching into utterly crazy mode.

William Holden as Joe Gillis
Here, Gillis is just relaxing with Norma… and probably hating himself.

Nancy Olson as Betty Schaffer
Here, Nancy discovers the truth about Joe's relationship with Norma—and she looks pretty upset, in consequence.

Cecil B. DeMille as Himself
Here, Cecil is meeting with Desmond, trying to delicately lower her expectations. This scene was filmed on the set of an actual movie DeMille was making at the time, Samson and Delilah.